North Korea's pervasive news presence has revealed how little most Americans really know about North Korea and how it became the globe-threatening regime it is today. How did North Korea get nuclear weapons, and why did North Korea develop nuclear weapons in the first place? The answers to those questions might surprise you. North Korea's nuclear weapon history is tied up in foreign policy and, ultimately, trying to form an alliance with the United States.
The US has had a vested interest in Korea dating back to the division of the peninsula following World War II. The US relationship with the North has always depended greatly on the leaders of that state - who all come from the same family and rival each other in their outlandish characteristics and unpredictable temperaments. But when it comes to weapons, blatant nuclear threats are a relatively recent development. North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are weapons not usually used in warfare (yet), and they actually exist thanks to numerous failed attempts to gain American approval.
After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, his son Kim Jong-il took over as leader of North Korea. He increased military spending but was the one that signed the Agreed Framework of 1994. As part of the step toward friendly relations with the US, North Korea also found a potential ally in South Korea. When Kim Dae-jung was elected as president of South Korea in 1997, he put into place the "Sunshine Policy" that allowed South Koreans to visit relatives in the north and eased up economic policies relating to North Korea. The leaders of North and South Korea also continued to meet with one another on and off between 1998 and 2000, working toward reunificiation. After Kim Dae-jung left office in 2003, his successor Roh Moo-Hyun voice his intention to continue the more open policies toward North Korea but was unable to do so.
Late in Bill Clinton's policy, the US had to intervene in North Korea after a report that they were developing nuclear military technology but, once again, Jimmy Carter was able to talk to both sides in the interest of making a deal and reviving the Agreed Framework. Negotiations between the US and North Korea were still in the works when Bill Clinton left office in early 2001. His successor, George W. Bush, asserted that he would continue talks with North Korea, as did the incoming Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
But other members of the Bush administration had other plans. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, among others, didn't agree with Clinton's policy and sought to dismantle talks. Their efforts were successful, apparently. According to Bush’s then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, “President Bush just woke up one morning and decided that he hated [Kim Jong-il]...I’m not joking about that, that’s what did it.” Bush not only decided that he wasn't going to work with Kim Jong-il but soon antagonized him further.
Later, however, W. became passionate about the victim-civilians of North Korea, who were living in horrible conditions under their government. He was the first president to meet with North Korean defectors, inviting them to the Oval Office.
After September 11, 2001, George W. Bush identified what he called an "axis of evil." In his State of the Union Address of 2002, Bush identified Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the "axis" and claimed that "North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens."
Bush wasn't wrong with his assertion that North Korea was working on military technology, something North Korea admitted shortly before pulling out of the NPT the following year. North Korea felt as though Bush had come "little short of declaring war." Bush's "war on terror" was a threat that North Korea couldn't ignore.
After 2003, the relationship between the US and North Korea remained strained. The US participated in the "six-party talks" held in China which included representatives from China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States. These talks began in 2003 and continued on and off until 2009 under the Obama administration. In 2005, Kim Jong-il agreed to suspend weapons building in exchange for food aid and removal from the US's list of states that sponsored terrorism, but this was short lived. In 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear bomb. It turns out they were also exporting weapons to Syria.
In 2007, another aid package in exchange for suspending nuclear activity was negotiated. When he left office, George Bush personally wrote a letter to Kim Jong-il asking him to keep the deal in place. By mid-2009, North Korea had tested its second nuclear weapon.